Mono Lake

Mono Lake (KQED Perspective aired March 1995)

Michael Ellis

After all bad news on the political front with the Republicans trying to wreck thirty years of good environmental legislation, I am happy to report that all is just fine at Mono Lake. Awesome is the appropriate word for this immense body of water, the oldest lake in the US. It’s actually a giant caldera, a remnant of a very big volcano and in last month it was ringed by snow-capped mountains. The sky was so blue, the air crisp and clean. It was splendid and all seemed right with the world.

And there is indeed good news, recently a court decision gave Mono Lake a reprieve from the thirst of Los Angeles. The courts guaranteed a lake level desired by biologists and LA agreed not to challenge this decision. After a battle of nearly 16 years we have won. This ruling will allow the lake to live and support the millions of birds that depend on it for vital sustenance.

The Forest Service has built a fancy Visitor Center celebrating the glories of the lake but they were reluctant players in the game to save it. The real hero is the Mono Lake Committee founded by David and Sally Gaines in 1979. I had the pleasure of first meeting David when he was on his way to pitch his idea of saving Mono Lake to the Audubon Society. I remember suggesting to him that it would be a great story for 60 Minutes…. the giants of LA Water district against David, the puny bird watcher. After all everyone had seen Chinatown. He said it was a good idea but what was 60 Minutes? I thought he was joking but his knowledge of that world was then limited. He knew nature. David was a reluctant warrior for the lake. His gentle spirit did not mesh well with conflict but he knew in his heart what was right and that gave him great power. He died in a car wreck in 1986. But his name and memory live on in the hearts and minds of those of us that love Mono Lake and will always remember David Gaines, its premier champion. One mans actions did make a difference. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

New York and the Amazon Basin

KQED PERSPECTIVE (aired June 94)
by Michael Ellis

I am blessed in many ways in my life but one of the greatest is by my profession – I make a living taking folks on natural history excursions to wonderful spots on the planet — the Amazon, Africa, Antarctica. I go snorkeling, birding, river rafting whale watching. So I am invariably asked “If this is your work, what the heck do you do for recreation??”

Well I must confess that I love to vacation in New York City. I revel in the contrast to the rest of my life. I get so energized when I am in that crush of humanity, that maelstrom of trade and commerce. The home of the extreme extremes.

Believe it or not the Big Apple reminds me of the Amazon Basin. The tropical rainforests are the richest biological places on earth. I can walk the same trail over and over and see a different assemblage of birds, insects and mammals every time. The entire Amazon world is buzzing with energy. At every level from the dense underground mycelia threads underpinning the entire forest floor to 200′ high up in the canopy layer, life is at full bore. Entire worlds live and die in one tree. The cacophony of insect sounds alone can drive some folks crazy. I happen to love it. The competition for resources is intense. If a plant or animal stays still in the Amazon for very long, it is soon overwhelmed, out competed and may go extinct.

New York is a human-created mirror image of the Amazon. The underground subway system roots the buildings, connects, intertwines and delivers the human protoplasm, which are the vehicles of energy. Instead of sunlight driving the eco-system, there is money and lots of it. Goods and services are exchanged at a frantic rate. You want it? Anything. New York has it. If you want to be tested, to compete, to thrive go to the City. To quote Sinatra, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Slow down, become weak, you are soon history. Entire worlds exist in the World Trade Center and in Harlem tenements. The diversity of life on the streets is astounding. Ah New York, Oh the Amazon I love you both.

Oaks in California

OK I admit it; I am an unabashed tree hugger– a pagan at heart. My white skinned ancestors were the Celts, the ultimate nature worshippers. And I am disturbed. There were several small items in the newspaper last week that were actually very big things. Scientists have realized that there exists a humungous Argentine ant colony that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco that is forever changing the mini-ecology of the entire area. Another study found that introduced Louisiana crawdads are eating many of the native salamanders and tadpoles in California’s streams.

But the most personal and upsetting news to me is the continued loss of hundreds of oak trees in Marin and Sonoma County. A fungus is attacking them and causing quite rapid death. For many of us this is equivalent to church burning. And apparently arborists have no clue as to how to protect the oak woodlands. The trees continue to die.

The genus for oaks is Quercus, which is derived from 2 Celtic words- quer -fine and cuez, tree. Great choice, they are fine trees. The priestly class of the Celts- the Druids – identified certain oak groves, as sacred in ancient Britain. Indeed the first thing the Christian missionaries did when attempting to convert the local heathens was to chop down and destroy the groves.

California is rich in Oaks there are 19 species and a mess of hybrids. Even the dendrologically challenged know oaks. They have acorns, distinctive wind pollinated flowers, very strong and lovely wood and oaks can live for centuries. The native peoples heavily relied upon acorns for sustenance. Countless birds and mammals depend upon the trees for food and shelter.

So what is our legacy to our grandchildren? A California devoid of red-legged frogs and newts. Will they never experience the architectural majesty and beauty of a solitary oak in a grassland? Will the chatter of gray squirrels and the raucous laugh of an acorn woodpecker not grace their world? That is too sad to imagine. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Diablo Winds

(KQED Perspective aired September 04)

During the fall we occasionally have hot dry winds blowing from the east. In southern California these are referred to as the Santa Ana’s because they blow out into San Pedro Channel through the Santa Ana Pass. In the San Francisco we should call them Diablo winds because they blow in from the Diablo Range of the inner coast mountains. In the Pacific Northwest they are called Chinooks, which is a Native American word that means snow eater. In Europe there are many names for hot winds that blow up from the Sahara. The Spanish call it Leveche; the Germans the foehn. To most Europeans these winds are known as the Sirocco – derived from an Arabic word that means east wind. In the Sudan this wind is called harmattan – the wind laden with blood-red dust.
But whatever you call those winds, they evoke strong, usually depressing emotions. They are allegedly full of positive ions which are supposed to negatively affect humans and their behavior. In contrast, areas full of negative ions are waterfalls and mountain tops – peaceful, relaxing places. I have read that Swiss surgeons will refuse to operate when a sirocco is blowing because they believe blood won’t clot as well. The Oakland firestorm, the Watts Riots, the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Pt. Reyes/Mt Vision fire all took place during strong hot winds. In fact Californians often refer to this kind of fall climate as Earthquake weather. Which makes no sense but there is always a sense of foreboding when those hot winds are blowing.
Raymond Chandler described it best in this passage “On nights like that [when the Santa Ana blows] every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

OK, well maybe it wasn’t that bad for you this week but things always seem to get more on edge during the Diablo’s. But soon enough the winter storms will be here and hot dry winds will be but a distant memory. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock
KQED Perspective aired May 05
By Michael Ellis

When I was in college and riding my bike to class there was always a place along my journey that smelled suddenly like Fritos. The smell of corn chips permeated the air and invariably made me hungry. I never did figure out what that smell was until many years later along the coast of Marin. My first spring here I was walking through a waste field of tall weeds when suddenly there it was – the smell of Frito Lay corn chips. There was nothing around me but very tall and full flowering poison hemlock plants!

Yes it is true. I have objectively confirmed that many times with groups along the trail. Stopping them suddenly and asking what’s that smell? They always say corn chips and are surprised to discover the true source.

Poison hemlock is a European weed introduced into the new world many years ago. It likes it here and thrives in marginal lands. It is a member of the Umbellefarie or carrot family and like many members of that group it is a biennial. The first year is spent growing a very large rosette of leaves. The second year it sends up a huge flowering stalk that can be up to 8 feet tall in good conditions. The stems and leaves are covered with obvious purple spots, the stems are hollow and the tiny flowers are white. These three characteristics separate from another weed found growing in similar places – common fennel. Fennel smells like licorice, the stems are full of pith and the flowers are yellow. Please don’t confuse these two or you may end up like Socrates.

Socrates of course was the well known Greek thinker who was put on trail for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. The authorities really just wanted him to plead guilty and go into exile but he refused. His trial was well-documented, he forced them to convict him, he refused to leave and they had to punish in the usual way. Cup of poison hemlock mixed with a pretty good load of opium and he was on his way to philosopher heaven. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.